NEWARK – Three Democrats vying to be New Jersey’s next governor made their pitches at a candidate forum Wednesday – billed as a ‘solutions-only, no-blame’ event by organizers and featuring only mild disagreement among the hopefuls.

Around 100 people attended the Citizens Campaign’s 90-minute forum at Rutgers-Newark’s Paul Robeson Campus Center. They applauded occasionally but mostly observed as former U.S. Treasury official Jim Johnson, Sen. Raymond Lesniak and Assemblyman John Wisniewski fielded questions on the economy, budget, education and cities.

One of the rare areas of contrast was over the use of corporate tax credits to promote economic development.

Lesniak, a longtime senator from Elizabeth, defended the nearly $7.8 billion in incentives offered through the Economic Development Authority since 2010 as needed to compete with other states and rebuild cities. Indeed, he said he’s sponsored all the laws creating the programs.

“New Jersey is a high-cost-of-doing-business state,” Lesniak said. Referencing the $102 million in incentives that relocated Panasonic headquarters from the Meadowlands to Newark, he added: “If that Panasonic building wasn’t there right here in downtown Newark, it would have been in Connecticut.”

“Instead of getting 100 percent of zero, we get 80 percent of something,” Lesniak said.

Wisniewski, an assemblyman from Sayreville for more than 20 years, said “the reality is is that tax incentives are spending” and that he’d freeze those programs as governor.

“When you look at the jobs created and the amount spent, you see that the average cost per job exceeds $100,000 a year. The problem is is that those jobs created don’t pay $100,000 a year,” said Wisniewski.

“Corporate welfare, which this is, has got to be cut back so we make sure we’re funding what’s important for the working men and women of this state,” he said.

Johnson, a Montclair resident who oversaw the Secret Service, ATF and Customs Service during President Bill Clinton’s administration, said the EDA is “part of basically a process that has not been effective because the investments have simply been through tax subsidies.”

“Instead of looking simply at subsidies, look around to the nation to the many states that have decided that their offices of economic development are going to focus on emerging businesses, they’re going to focus on young entrepreneurs. They’ll provide mentorship and training to those entrepreneurs,” he said.

“That’s the sort of work that we should be doing,” Johnson said. “So it’s not necessarily costing more money, but it’s creating more opportunity. That should be the driver.”

Lesniak said the more than $7 billion in incentives would be spread out over 30 years. He said Rutgers is currently studying the incentives and that his defense is “not to say they’re perfect” – though he says they’re necessary.

“It’s not money that we have spent,” Lesniak said. “It’s money that we wouldn’t have had in the first place.”

In other parts of the forum:

  • Johnson said he supports expanded pre-kindergarten programs to all school districts in the state. Lesniak said that to equalize educational opportunity, a program needs to be set up that provides prenatal help through age 3 in the cities through “wraparound community schools.”
  • Lesniak pledged to make New Jersey “fossil fuel free” by 2050.
  • Wisniewski called for increased spending on mass transit options.
  • Wisniewski said he’d immediately fully fund the current school-aid formula. Lesniak said that’s unrealistic because it would cost $1.5 billion but said he’d fund it within four years.
  • Lesniak and Wisniewski called for restoring the higher tax rate on income over $1 million that expired at the end of 2009; Gov. Chris Christie has repeatedly vetoed efforts to reinstate it. Johnson said he’s open to considering the idea but doesn’t currently raising the tax; he did express support for reinstating the estate tax, which is being phased out at the end of 2017.
  • All the candidates said conversations would have to take place with public workers’ unions about making changes to their pensions and/or health benefits, after commitments are shown to fully funding existing pension deficits.

The Democrat ahead in early polls did not attend the forum: Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and United States ambassador to Germany. Murphy was in Trenton accepting the Sierra Club endorsement as the event in Newark was underway, then won the Mercer County convention at night.

A Quinnipiac University poll this month found Murphy at 23 percent, Wisniewski at 6 percent and Johnson and Lesniak at 4 percent each. A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll in January measured Murphy at 17 percent, Lesniak at 7 percent, Wisniewski and 6 percent and Johnson at 2 percent.

Johnson has raised enough money to qualify for the $2-for-$1 state matching funds program; he has received more than $750,000 in matching funds to date. Wisniewski filed for matching funds Tuesday.

Murphy is independently wealthy and not participating in the matching-funds program. He had loaned his campaign $10 million as of the end of December.

The Citizens Campaign gubernatorial candidates forum at Rutgers-Newark. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)

Other lower-profile Democrats who have filed paperwork with the Election Law Enforcement Commission declaring their candidacies were not invited to the forum: Paul Binetti of Secaucus, Bill Brennan of Wayne, Monica Brinson of Hasbrouck Heights, Titus Pierce of Lawrenceville and Mark Zinna of Tenafly.

The Citizens Campaign plans to hold a second forum before the primary with Republican candidates.

Five Republicans have filed paperwork with ELEC to run for governor: Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers, Joseph Rullo of Little Egg Harbor and Hirsh Singh of Linwood.

April 3 is the filing deadline for candidates to appear on the June 6 primary ballot.

Independent and third-party candidates have until June 6 to file. One already filed his petition with the state Division of Elections: Vincent Ross of Edison, running under the slogan ‘We the People.’

Five have filed with ELEC to date, including former Long Hill Mayor Gina Genovese, Green Party candidate Seth Kaper-Dale of Highland Park, Jon Lancelot of Butler and Mike Price of Egg Harbor Township.

Karese Laguerre of Parlin has filed paperwork to run for governor, but she’s now the Libertarian Party nominee for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Peter Rohrman of Paramus, who hasn’t yet filed with ELEC.

Comedian and radio host Jim Piscopo is considering an independent run for governor. He had been mulling a possible run for the Republican nomination but ruled that out this week.


New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.


Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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